Traffic-safety director gave 30 years to 18-month job
Anyone walking into Wayne Harper' office June 1 might notice his brown leather jacket, matching fedora and bull whip missing from his coat rack. But if the window is open, don't be fooled.
The "Indiana Jones" enthusiast is not trekking across the globe to retrieve stolen artifacts — although he can sometimes be found at home watching his favorite Hollywood franchise — no, Harper is more likely relaxing somewhere with his five grandchildren.
The founding York County Center for Traffic Safety director will retire May 31, after giving 30 years to what he thought would be an 18-month project.
"Before I started this job, I used to host a radio show. I was a talk show host on local radio," Harper said. "I used to have the coroner come in once a month and we would talk about all kinds of interesting things."
Harper, with a master's in mass communications from Shippensburg University, filled his radio slate with all kinds of monthly guests, from doctors and lawyers to financial wizards and others. But it was former York County Coroner Kathryn Fourhman, since retired, who with one grant changed Harper's career path.
Since then, Harper's efforts have saved untold lives not just in York County or the surrounding region, but across the state.
"She had a grant opportunity to do a seat belt program to utilize federal monies through a grant through the Department of Transportation. And she came in one day said, 'Hey, why don’t you apply for this position. It’s an 18-month grant. And why don’t you direct this program,'" Harper said.
"I thought, 'OK, but I'm in radio. What do I do after 18 months?'"
After mulling it over, Harper took the offer and left the radio station — WOYK — behind. Two weeks later, the station was sold and the whole staff fired, he said.
Now, 30 years into an 18-month grant, Harper is again moving on. This time, the staff he leaves behind will not be in danger of losing their jobs. The 31st grant Harper has applied for will be his last. He could have retired in March when he hit 30 years, he said, but he wanted to stick it out until the grant was in hand to pass along to the staff that will keep things running in his stead.
Safety: "We started with a seat belt program. We did that for 18 months, and during that (time) we got offered a grant to do, I don’t know, motorcycles or something, another grant, I think it was motorcycle safety. And then we just kept adding components to the safety effort," he said.
What started with seat belts expanded through further grants to include child passenger safety, pedestrian safety, bicycle safety, safe driving, vehicle safety, mature driver safety, railroad crossing safety and DUI, he said.
And the center has continued to expand and diversify over the years.
"We reapply every year for grant monies from the Department of Transportation, and we get accepted — it’s a competitive bidding thing — and they keep picking our office to do it. So we’re entering the 31st year of an 18-month grant," he said.
The grant-writing process is just to get the funding to continue doing the program. The center has been involved in promoting traffic safety, and of course the ultimate goal is to reduce the number of crashes, injuries and deaths, Harper said.
The numbers show the center and its partners have done just that. With a little luck to boot, he said.
York County averages between 4,500 and 5,000 motor vehicle crashes per year, and it has for 30 years, Harper said. As time has gone by, the number of drivers on the road and the number of miles driven have each gone up. But the crash numbers have stayed relatively uniform for three decades.
"The process is what has been successful for us. We spend a lot of time working with institutions in the community, individuals, organizations, companies, schools and police departments. And truly, the secret to putting together a successful program like this is getting all of the institutions in the community involved," Harper said. "Having them assume some ownership of what we’re trying to do. And we have been very, very lucky over the years."
Staff: He calls it community development. Along with his booming radio voice, his engaging demeanor and his enthusiasm for bringing people together, Harper said he has been able to draw on a reliable staff over the years to get the programs up and running.
"I’ve had a phenomenal staff. I started with one secretary, I think you now you have to call them an administrative assistant. So it was me and one administrative assistant, just serving York County," he said. "Now there are three and a half people. The director, two coordinators and a part-time administrative assistant. And we serve four counties — Adams, Lebanon, Lancaster and York."
Barbara Zortman, traffic safety specialist, has been with Harper and the center for 19 years. As of June 1, she will assume the director's role, taking over for Harper.
"In my opinion, he is an icon," she said. "Everything I know, I learned from him."
Slowing down: New trends are always emerging regarding traffic safety, as are ways to combat them. Harper has been adept at coming up with creative ways to develop and market programs with the the help of his staff and community partners over the years. What he lacked in knowledge he made up for in enthusiasm. And some point, the two categories must have been commensurate. But over time, the former overtook the latter.
“I didn’t know much, but I was really energetic. Now I really believe that I know something, but I don’t have as much energy," Harper said.
Technology, too, is surpassing the veteran mass communicator.
Social media is going to play a big role in how the center promotes traffic safety going forward, and Harper just doesn’t have the grasp on it his staffers do, he said. It is time, as he said, to hand it over to the ones who will take the program a step further.
"Facebook, Twitter, SnapChat, I’m aware of all of it. I understand the concept. But I’m not involved with that," he said.
Ironically, the very thing outpacing the traffic safety veteran is fast becoming the biggest threat to drivers today.
“Distracted driving, that’s another emerging issue. It’s not just cellphones anymore, it’s all the social media that goes along with it," Harper said.
It is one of the last major initiatives he helped design a program to address.
Legacy: Harper tells the story of Ashlyn Stambaugh, a 17-year-old student at Spring Grove Area High School who was going to pick up her friend a year ago. On her way, her friend kept texting her, "Where are you," and "You’re running late,” he said.
Stambaugh was almost to her destination when she decided to respond the messages she was receiving.
“And while she is typing the word ‘Here,’ she is driving off the road, hitting a utility pole and getting killed within sight of the house of her friend," Harper said. "She was in a crash on a Friday afternoon, she died on a Sunday, and on Monday her uncle was in here asking what we could do about texting and driving."
The program is called Here ... but Driving, a pledge never to text and drive and to try to prevent others from doing so as well.
“What it is is a three-part pledge that you take. One is not to text and drive, but the second one is to download an app to your phone that tells people you’re driving and you can’t respond to them right now. And the third pledge is to pass the information along to someone else, a friend, a loved one, whoever," he said. "We’ve had 5,000 pledges signed so far."
Next: Harper is not sure what is next in store for him. His hobbies — aside from films based on 1930s-era treasure hunting — tend to center around area speedway racing.
"I'm going to keep my involvement with that. I work Friday nights at the Trailway Speedway, Saturday nights at Lincoln Speedway. And they race like nine months of the year," he said. "So Friday and Saturday nights I'll be as busy with that as I have been for the last, oh, 30 years also."
Harper said 30 years from now cars will be driving themselves and much of his work will become obsolete. But until all the self-driving cars have replaced all of the vehicles on the road that have a human behind the wheel, traffic safety will have to account for human error. And if the past 30 years are any indication, there will always be a need to promote traffic safety.
"Thirty years ago, (Fourhman) said, 'If I could get people to wear their seat belts all the time and not drink and drive, we’d eliminate most of the traffic fatalities,'" Harper said.
"And 30 years later, that’s still true. “